The recent Iowa State Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, followed by the Vermont state legislature's vote to extend full marriage rights to same-sex couples and to override the Republican governor's veto of the bill, have brought the gay marriage issue back into the spotlight. These new developments have also created the sense that, despite the recent setback in California where voters narrowly approved a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a male-female union, the same-sex marriage movement has time and momentum on its side. While this may well be true, it also means that we are in for another long and bloody chapter in America's culture wars.
On one side in this war is the American tradition of equality. Once proponents of same-sex marriage were able to frame the issue as one of equal rights, they became a virtually irresistible force. The appeal to equality has a deep resonance in a country whose founding document opens with the assertion that "all men are created equal." The knowledge that this basic principle was violated for a very long time with regard to blacks, women, and other disenfranchised groups makes most Americans all the more sensitive to demands for equal treatment.
To this, one can add another strong American tradition: separation of church and state. Objections to same-sex marriage are couched mostly in terms of religious faith, and the imposition of private religious beliefs on individuals who may not share them strikes most of us today as fundamentally un-American. Also on the side of same-sex marriage supporters is the conviction that how we govern our intimate relationships is a fundamental matter of privacy and freedom. Then there are the powerful narratives of gays and lesbians denied legal protection for their relationships: men and women kept away from a dying loved one, or treated as mere roommates of a deceased partner and losing their joint property. The sight of gay and lesbian couples on the news, celebrating their legal nuptials after being together for thirty years and more, probably played a major role in the growth of pro-gay marriage sentiment.
On the other side is the equally powerful American tradition that gives faith a central role in civic life. Even aside from the traditional Judeo-Christian condemnation of same-sex sexual relations as sinful, the belief that marriage is a fulfillment of God's purpose of bringing men and women together for the task of creating future generations is central to most religious belief.
In the case of abortion, something of a compromise has been achieved by guarantees that no taxpayer money may be used to subsidize abortion services: in this way, people who oppose abortion do not have to feel they are giving it their sanction. Yet marriage, especially for traditionalists, amounts to giving a union the approval of the community—including, implicitly, their own. Indeed, many gay advocates concur: to them, the goal of marriage, rather than civil unions or domestic partnerships with most of the same legal rights, is full cultural acceptance. And, while no one suggests that churches opposed to same-sex marriages could be required to perform them, other thorny conflicts between religious liberty and gay equality have already arisen (for instance, should a Catholic adoption agency that has a contract with the state be forced to place children with gay and lesbian couples?).
There is no question that religion has often been used to promote virulent hatred and contempt toward gays. Yet traditionalist objections to same-sex marriage include not only religious scruples but concerns about the consequences of sexual liberation that are shared by many people on secular grounds—concerns about a cultural environment in which 40 percent of children are born out of wedlock and half of all marriages end in divorce. Is it bigoted to believe that it is ideal for children is to have a mother and a father, or to worry that same-sex marriage will further uncouple marriage from childbearing and thus make it far harder to answer the question, "Why wait for marriage before having children?" Traditional views that stigmatize divorce and single parenthood and emphasize complementary male/female roles in the family have been losing ground for some time (for better and worse); but, until now, they have not been equated with bigotry and thus implicitly declared beyond the pale.
Today, traditionalists complain—with some cause—that their valid concerns are being dismissed and that the other side rejects all compromise. But same-sex marriage foes are hardly free of blame for the bitterness and polarization in this debate. Not many of them have spoken out against truly hateful anti-gay rhetoric, such as comparisons of gays to pedophiles or practitioners of bestiality. For the most part, when they have advocated civil unions and other legal protections for same-sex partnerships, it has been a grudging tactical acceptance to avoid the dreaded alternative of gay marriage.
The level of acrimony is likely to rise in the coming years, as more states legalize same-sex marriage and Congress tackles the Defense of Marriage Act which exempts same-sex unions from interstate or federal recognition. This culture war is here to stay.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. This column originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.com.